Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
The Light in the Piazza
Book by Craig Lucas; Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel
Royal Festival Hall, London, until 5 July 2019
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
American musical theatre fans, always on the lookout for the next Sondheim, have often bestowed this crown on Adam Guettel. For one thing he's the grandson of Richard Rodgers and he shares Sondheim's love for pushing boundaries, if not the latter's more popular instincts.
When this adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer's novella hit Broadway in 2005 musicologists touted the richness and variety of its musical tone. It certainly has the whiff of Sondheim (what doesn't) but it fluctuates between more conventional Broadway sound and the lyrical flourish of opera. Its quieter moments are not so much musical theatre numbers as Art Songs.
Like every musical theatre nut I raced to The Curve in Leicester when it finally made its European debut there in 2009. It had won 6 Tonys and huge acclaim on Broadway but I found it vapid and soulless and thought it could maybe be redeemed by some star casting.
When it was announced that the great opera diva Renée Fleming was signed to lead the London premiere I believed I would finally see the light. The prospect of Opera North's 40 piece orchestra unleashing the power of the lush score in a lavish RFH production increased my anticipation even further. Sadly, the allure of this piece continues to elude me.
Fans will argue about the variety of its musical tone but it never coheres musically as a musical needs to do. You won't remember a note. It strives to be opera but hasn't got the emotional heft for that. If the score was really that good you would think it would compensate for Craig Lucas' flimsy book (cardboard characters, postcard scenes, cod Italian accents) and do all the emotional heavy lifting required but it never rises to that. Despite the sterling efforts of all involved I still find it suffocatingly high minded, not needing a revival so much as embalming.
The story, set in the 1950s, is about a beautiful, but mentally disabled, young American woman Clara (Dove Cameron) who travels to Italy with her wealthy Southern matron mother (Renée Fleming) and falls hopelessly in love with an Italian boy whom they encounter in Florence. It is a hymn to True Love. Like Summertime or Roman Holiday before it, it contrasts the buttoned-up Eisenhower-era Americans with the emotionally florid Italians.
Fleming is the reason to go, however. She has the good taste to know she doesn't really need to shift into top gear, but always can. She is elegance personified and has the acting chops to make the best song, 'Dividing Day,' finally cut through emotionally. This is when the revelation of the hollowness of her own marriage spurs her on to encourage Clara to take her own leap of faith in romance.
Director Daniel Evans does wonders to keep it all moving but the leaden book with its endless aborted conversations hobbles him most of the time. He is greatly assisted by the production team. Brigitte Reiffenstuel's Dior like costumes, Mark Henderson's subtly shifting lighting and Robert Jones vast curved Piazza set are all impressive.
The challenge for casting this is that some roles demand operatically trained voices while others don't. So here, as well as Fleming, we get the great soprano Marie McLaughlin as Fabrizio's mother (leading a ravishing octet) and by contrast Dove Cameron, the Disney TV star (and Instagram phenomenon) who plays Clara has a more traditional musical theatre voice. She invests her insipid character some much needed vigour.
Then there's the eternally twinkly Alex Jennings who manages to hold his own against the divas and gives us a Signor Naccarelli who is real silver fox. Despite most of his lines being in Italian he's still as English as cream tea, though.
In supporting roles Malcolm Sinclair shines in the slight but pivotal role as the husband back in North Carolina and the statuesque Celinde Schoenmaker goes brunette this time (she's unrecognisable) and displays the va-va-voom of a young Gina Lollobrigida.
The revelation of the evening though comes in the shape of the slight figure of Rob Houchen (like a young Freddie Fox) who plays the romantic lead Fabrizio. Dramatically it's a thankless role but musically he brings it home. His great tenor voice combines clarity and power and he deservedly brings the house down. To shine in this company is quite something and he will be one to watch.